Panera Bread becomes 1st national chain to label menu items climate friendly

A 2019 report from the United Nations found that the global food system accounts for 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Panera Bread
Panera worked with the World Resources Institute to calculate the carbon footprint of the menu.Getty Images
/ Source: CNBC

A decade ago, Panera Bread became the first national restaurant chain to disclose the calorie counts of its menu items.

Starting Wednesday, it will also lead the charge in labeling items as climate friendly.

Whenever the ingredients of the chain’s salads, sandwiches and soups collectively have a footprint of less than 5.38 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, the menu item will carry a badge proclaiming the entree a “Cool Food Meal,” the designation from the World Resources Institute.

Panera worked with the environmental think tank to calculate the carbon footprint of the menu, with 55% of its entrees earning the badge. Menu items with the distinction include its Broccoli Cheddar soup and Mediterranean Bowl.

CEO Niren Chaudhary said in an interview that the change is meant to raise awareness about the link between food and greenhouse gas emissions and give customers the ability to make an informed decision. Grains, fruits and vegetables are at the lower end of the scale, while dairy products and meat are at the higher end.

A 2019 report from the United Nations found that the global food system accounts for 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, in response to research and growing public pressure, the restaurant industry has become more involved in the fight against climate change, pledging to limit waste and add more plant-based proteins to menus. One of the most ambitious proposals comes from Starbucks, the second-largest restaurant chain by sales, which said in January that it is striving to become “resource positive.”

Panera, which has been privately held for three years, pledged in 2016 to lower its carbon emissions by 15% per square foot by 2022. Chaudhary said that the company is on track to meet that goal. The chain is also planning to increase the number of plant-based offerings on its menu from 25% to half over the next few years.

Sara Burnett, Panera’s vice president of food values, sustainability and public affairs, said that more than half of Panera’s carbon footprint comes from the food that it serves.

Just Salad, which has locations across six states, implemented carbon labeling earlier this year. Unlike Panera, its labels disclose the exact carbon footprint. A Buffalo Caesar Salad, for example, has 0.77 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Burnett compared Panera’s “Cool Food Meal” badge to Good Housekeeping’s seal of approval.

“Our mind hasn’t really wrapped around what that value is, so we wanted to make it as easy as possible for consumers to get it,” she said.

Panera hopes that, like its disclosure of calorie counts, its use of the badge will establish a new benchmark for the restaurant industry.

“This can be meaningful if it starts multiplying,” Chadhaury said.

This story originally appeared on CNBC.